Corporate Messaging in a Time of Turmoil

Consumers increasingly demand that brands take a stance

Jun 02, 2020

SMITH BRAIN TRUST  It can be difficult in times of great turmoil to find the right words. But business leaders and brands can try. And sometimes, when they succeed, it can have a significant impact, says Maryland Smith’s Amna Kirmani.

Kirmani has studied how consumers interact with brands based on their corporate social responsibility actions.

As millions of people around the country gather to protest the police killing of George Floyd and other examples of brutality and social inequality, Kirmani examined the role that brands play in leading a conversation.

Citi CFO Mark Mason, for example, published a widely shared letter over the weekend on Citi’s website. Companies such as Twitter, Apple, Netflix, Disney and Levi’s, released statements. Nike released a powerful, one-minute video.

In times of turmoil, Kirmani says, companies may respond differently, but the intent behind their messaging must be authentic and responsible.

“In the case of Citi and Mason, the message was not an official statement from the company, it was more of a personal appeal,” says Kirmani. “A lot of African Americans in power feel compelled to say something because this is deeply personal for them, and they are terrified and heartbroken and angry to see what is playing out.”

Consumer-facing companies, in general, have become more vocal about their corporate social responsibility actions in recent years, Kirmani says. Consumers, particularly younger ones, demand it. They want companies to show their values by donating to causes they align with.

“Millennials are a driving force behind this change because they want to see their brands and companies to take a stand on social issues,” says Kirmani.

But a key to the message is authenticity, she says. Companies must consider whether they are in a position to properly contribute to the dialogue given their previous actions, Kirmani says.

“What’s coming out right now is companies trying to showcase corporate responsibility by putting their money where their mouth is, and donating to different causes and legal defense funds,” Kirmani says. “These companies are not doing this in hopes to sell their products, but rather because it is the right thing to do.”

In the wake of the George Floyd protests, Nike was able to capture public sentiments with its “Don’t Do It” campaign. The message aligns with the brand’s 2018 ad campaign in support of former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

By contrast, a statement released by the NFL and commissioner Roger Goodell feels disingenuous, she says, given how Kaepernick was actively barred from the league after sparking controversy by taking a knee during the televised national anthem in protest of police brutality.

“If the NFL wanted to make their statement more believable, they could have shown their support for Kaepernick and the causes he has championed, but they didn’t,” says Kirmani. “That’s an organization whose actions belie its words.”

Some companies will be slow to release statements, says Kirmani, wary of having their message misconstrued by those who disagree. Some who want to take a stand against police brutality may worry about appearing to be against law enforcement as a whole. But silence is not a winning strategy, she says.

“People will be interested to see which companies spontaneously took a stand, those who were compelled to take a stand, and those that won’t take a stand at all,” Kirmani says.




About the Expert(s)


Amna Kirmani is the Ralph J. Tyser Professor of Marketing at the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland. Her research interests include ​morality, persuasion knowledge, ​online communication, ​and branding. Her work has been published in several journals, including the Journal of Consumer Research, Journal of Marketing Research, Journal of Marketing, and Journal of Consumer Psychology. Her papers have won the Paul Green Award in the Journal of Marketing Research, the Maynard Award in the Journal of Marketing, and the Best Paper Award in the Journal of Advertising. She is Editor of the Journal of Consumer Research and former Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Consumer Psychology.

More In


Why Brands Are Rethinking Their Political Giving

Several corporations say they're halting or suspending donations to the 147 lawmakers who voted against certifying the election.

Jan 13, 2021
The Trends That Will Shape Marketing in 2021

What are the major trends that will affect business and marketing in 2021?

Jan 08, 2021
YY Live Is No Luckin

Is YY Live a strong buy? Or is it, as Muddy Waters short-selling research firm asserts, a live-streaming service full of bots and 'sham transactions'? Why YY Live is better positioned than Luckin was, in the face of Muddy Waters' fraud allegations.

Dec 03, 2020
Robert H. Smith School of Business
Map of Robert H. Smith School of Business
University of Maryland
Robert H. Smith School of Business
Van Munching Hall
College Park MD 20742